Research has shown that our brains are hard wired to hang on to negative input. This “negativity bias” may have had an evolutionary benefit in that we could recognize and remember danger easily and learn to avoid it. However, in modern times, this can make developing a healthy positive self image more challenging, especially for children with chronic health conditions who have ever only known themselves as having, and maybe being defined by, a diagnosis. Many children (and probably adults) are reluctant to accept a positive vision of themselves and what they may be able to achieve as negative thoughts compete for their interval vision. It is only when they are willing to try and then do achieve tangible success that they become open to the idea that other things are possible. For instance, when one of my sons was 8 years old, he suddenly developed a fear of swimming in water that was over his head. This quickly expanded from being unwilling to swim in the deep end of pools to being afraid to even be near deep water such as standing on a pier. This was a problem, particularly since we live in a coastal town by the expansive Atlantic ocean. I found an extraordinarily talented swim teacher and brought him to her pool one Saturday. I vividly remember squinting through the little window on the door (parents were not allowed in), watching the two of them standing by the deep end of the pool. She had her hand on her hip and was bent slightly forward, talking to him. He was small for his age, shy and not one for words but incredibly observant. He was looking up at her, curly hair stuck in the rubber band of his swim goggles, quietly attentive but uncertain. I could not hear their conversation, but the vision of what happened next has stuck with me ever since. She reached over and threw weighted rubber swim rings into the pool, and with a sure handed wave, indicated he should jump in after them. And he did. Seconds later, the water parted as a ring broke the surface, held aloft in his clutched hand, and then the rest of him emerged. Grinning, he handed it to her, and proceeded to dive back down to fetch the rest.
I knew right then that all children should have a ring-in-the-hand moment, a time when there was proof positive that they could succeed with something they had not thought they were capable. No matter how many times I could have told him that he had it in him to overcome this fear, nothing was ever going to be stronger than holding that ring in his hand himself. He did it. Even he could not refute that, it was undeniable. What was the secret to the swim teacher’s success? It was her confidence. She believed he could do it, and feeling that confidence ooze from her every pore, it overtook him and he had to wonder if he should believe as well. When he took that small leap into the pool, he took a very large leap in believing in himself. I have since looked for ways to build this ring-in-the-hand moment into the lives of children with chronic health conditions, as if they believe they can do one small thing, then they start to think they can achieve something else. And something else after that. We have utilized this goal of having every child achieve some tangible success into our overnight camp for kids with heart conditions, and we make sure the moment is pointed out so that it is emblazoned in their minds and hearts forever more. They can do it. They did it. I swear those children stand 3 inches taller at the end of a 3 day camp period, and the incredulous look and unbridled tears of joy streaming down the parents’ faces when they fetch their children at the closing ceremony has proven to me that this is one of the most powerful elements to incorporate into the health care experience. If they can achieve one small thing, where could they go next? I for one would like to find out.